In the film industry, ordinary wooden clothespins are used to attach colored plastic gels to lights and they’re called C-47s.
A prominent visual effects artist told me an origin story of the phrase:
Back in the early days of Hollywood, studio heads would do audits and they’d see that the lighting departments were spending a ton of money on clothespins. And they said “we’re spending all this money on clothespins. This is ridiculous!” And they shut it down you know, not understanding that the clothespin is a very important tool for lighting that we use everyday. So the lighting guys started calling them ‘C-47s’ so that when the big-wigs saw so-and-so hundred dollars for C-47s and they said, “Oh sure, ‘C-47’ that sounds important, no problem.”
As a film student, I’ve heard several contradictory stories about the phrase C-47. Some of the other prominent origin tales are that they were names after a WWII fighter plane by returning soldiers turned filmmakers, or that C-47 is the patent number.
All of these stories are equally unverified. In practice, the lingo ‘C-47’ mainly serves as a test of membership on film sets. If you’re a newcomer on a set and a grip asks you to fetch a C-47, you have no idea what they mean and are forced to ask someone. It’s embarrassing to realize that a C-47 is just a simple clothes pin. The lingo functions as an inside joke, and an initiation that everyone on a film set must undergo.
“When Pancho Villa, that is when American troops were chasing Pancho Villa across the border in a, in a series of skirmishes the Mexicans heard the Americans singing the song ‘Green grows the lilacs’ which was a popular st-st-st uh, song turn of the century. And so what the Mexicans heard was not ‘Green Grows the lilacs’ but they heard green – gringos. They said it really fast, ‘gringos’. So that’s what I, where I heard that that came from, was gringos.”
The informant is a 67-year-old caregiver residing in Whittier, California. He has divided most of his life between California, Iowa, and Colorado but lived in Phoenix, Arizona for a few years.
The informant said he heard it when he lived in Phoenix back in the 50’s when he was in late elementary school. He said it was closer to Mexico then (perhaps meaning that he was closer to Mexico then). The context that this folk etymology came up was my sister was showing pictures of her honeymoon in the Mexican Riviera and she mentioned that she felt like a gringo when she was down there as she didn’t speak any Spanish. We got to talking about the difference between the terms ‘gringo’ and “americano’ and the informant rattled off this little tidbit. He had told us this etymology before and with gusto, which likely indicates that he believes it is true.
The informant is a bit of an encyclopedia of random knowledge that he likes to spout off, and this etymology is likely one of those facts. I personally had believed the informant for many years until I asked him where he learned it and if he had corroborated this story. He learned it from someone else and hadn’t cross-referenced for veracity. I personally think it’s interesting how sure he is that his story is true. I think it’s interesting that this story would make the term seem fairly harmless. It’s just a linguistic mess up – so when someone calls another a gringo it’s just a local term for someone. And yet I have spoken to a few Spanish-speaking people, one in particular who was Dominican, who said she wouldn’t call her friends gringos – so apparently the term has negative connotations, yet this etymology makes to reference to the negativity surrounding the word.